CATLETTSBURG Heroin in the streets didn’t spark the vicious drug epidemic throttling Boyd County, Sheriff Bobby Jack Woods argued as he urged the fiscal court to file suit against opioid distributors.
“We need to hold them accountable for the problems that started here in Boyd County,” he said.
Woods made his recommendation last week in a fiscal court meeting. He cited a discussion he and Judge-Executive Steve Towler had in late July with officials of the Kentucky Association of Counties who educated them on their legal options.
Government bodies across Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio are pouncing on the chance to sue opioid-distributing corporations. They’re partnering with law firms – Greene, Ketchum Farrell Bailey & Tweel of Huntington – in pursuit of millions of dollars in damages.
Cabell County hired the Huntington firm and filed suit in March against mega-corporations distributing the drug, according to the suit filed in federal court.
The suit alleges the companies sold 40 million doses of opioid pain medicine in Cabell County between 2007 and 2012. The county’s population hovered around 94,000 in the same time span.
Federal law requires drug distributors to report any suspicious controlled substance orders by pharmacies to authorities. The wholesale distributors "breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates originating from Cabell County,” the suit alleges.
Greene Ketchum is representing Kanawha County, W. Va. and Clermont County, Ohio in similar litigation.
Like Clermont, Boyd County could sue opioid wholesalers on the grounds they caused a “public nuisance,” by allegedly contributing to the opioid abuse and dependency, Woods said.
“I don’t know why we wouldn’t get on board with this,” said Towler. “Most people recognize we have an addiction problem, and a lot of people believe these companies are partly at fault.”
The opioid epidemic has pummeled Boyd more than any other county in eastern Kentucky. Boyd reported 30 overdoses last year, the sixth most in the state behind Jefferson, Fayette, Boone, Campbell and Kenton. Boyd’s population of 48,000 is the 16th highest in the state and nearly half the size of Campbell’s – the least populated of the five.
The overdose death totals in Boyd have escalated since 2014, when 13 people died. The next year, 24 died. And, the county is on track this year to catapult beyond last year’s total.
The Boyd coroner has confirmed 23 overdose deaths as of July 31.
Addiction is not only leading to overdose deaths. It’s leading otherwise law-abiding citizens to commit crimes, said Woods. It’s also draining resources from emergency responders.
Boyd EMS has treated at least 185 overdose patients this year according to Director Tom Adams. The agency is on pace to spend $30,000 on the overdose-reversing drug Narcan in 2017. The EMS Narcan budget was $1,200 eight years ago.
Pending litigation filed against wholesalers seeks reimbursement of “the costs associated with past efforts to eliminate the hazards to public health and safety."
If Boyd filed suit and was successful in its suit the county could use settlement money to fund emergency services, law enforcement, the coroner’s office, the jail, rehabilitation and treatment centers. The financially-strapped Boyd County 911 center could also benefit, Woods said.
The county would likely not be on the hook for legal fees if it sues wholesale distributors according to KACo. Greene Ketchum agreed to work for Cabell County on a contingency basis. The law firm would receive 30 percent of any potential damages won but won’t charge the county if no damages are awarded.
Boyd would not be the only Kentucky county looking for perceived compensation from wholesalers.
Harlan County announced plans to join Bell and other southeastern counties last month in a class-action suit against three distributors.
The state of Kentucky is also pursuing ancillary litigation. Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear announced in June a lawsuit against drug manufacturers who he claims illegally marketed opioids to patients. The state reached a $24 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of oxycontin, in 2015, the year a record-high 1,248 fatally overdosed.
The state record was short-lived. Last year, 1,404 died after overdosing in Kentucky.
The Boyd Fiscal Court took no action last week after Woods asked the fiscal court to consider his request.
Towler believes the process could take three-to-five years.
“But it could be worth it,” he said.
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